When he was elected Columbia mayor 20 years ago, Bob Coble was a young outsider eager to turn back the decline of city neighborhoods. Now 57, "Mayor Bob" is proud of expanding revitalization efforts to the riverfront and throughout downtown.
Kit Smith, 64, began her service on Richland County Council in 1990 as well. With a background in policy research, she carved out growth planning as her area of expertise, at a time the county was shifting from rural to suburban.
In 1994, Steve Hefner was promoted to superintendent of Richland 2 schools, an academically rich force for growth in Northeast Richland. At 61, he been with the district a total of 36 years and is admired for expanding choice, magnet and technology programs.
This year, the three - among the most trusted public officials in the Midlands - are retiring.
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Recently, they talked with The State on a range of topics, from their own job performances to the challenges their successors will face. Excerpts follow.
TOP THREE ACCOMPLISHMENTS IN OFFICE
Coble: I'd start with the revitalization of Columbia's neighborhoods. In 1990, we'd had three straight censuses of declining population and declining homeownership, and that's been reversed. ... Crime is significantly down over those 20 years.
Secondly, ... the revitalization on the river, the convention center and downtown. One that I think is always so very important is BRAC 2005, (the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which fought to retain) Fort Jackson. All of these are regional efforts. Different people took different leads on different parts.
Hefner: Improving academic achievement would be the thing that I would feel best about, and secondly would be managing our phenomenal growth.
During the 16 years I was superintendent, we almost doubled in size from over 13,000 to right at 25,000 students; and went from 15 schools to now 36. And as I have said on so many occasions, each time you add a new school to your family, it's not like adding a new child at your home dinner table, it's like acquiring an additional spouse: You get a new set of in-laws and you may get college loans to pay off and stepchildren. So that's been a huge challenge, and one that I feel we've handled well.
And the third thing is ensuring financial stability ... during these very difficult days. Anything we've done ... is a reflection of a very strong, stable school board and a supportive community. We have prepared for a rainy day and, so far, it's held us in good stead, although we are now beginning to feel the rain.
Smith: For me, No. 1 would be raising the issue of sustainability and sustainable growth and development. I'm not sure I've succeeded at getting a lot done there, but I think setting the agenda is the first step in any major policy change, and that agenda has definitely been set.
The two specific things are our (Richland County) Conservation Commission and our neighborhood redevelopment planning. You never get anything done by yourself in politics, you can't take sole credit, but I think having an idea and then trying to work to make it happen, developing alliances on those two things, have really paid off.
The conservation commission has just won a national award. We have done phenomenal things with that in terms of historic properties being preserved, greenways being developed and developing an advocacy group for sustainability issues.
As y'all are aware, we have such restrictive annexation laws in this state and a lot of the county should be in the city. We have a lot of urban areas and suburban areas that, in other states, would automatically be annexed into the city. So the county has had a lot of pressure to provide urban services, and one of those is neighborhood redevelopment. Particularly in our first-ring suburban areas like Dutch Square, Decker Mall, some parts of Garners Ferry. Olympia is not in the city. So we started a neighborhood redevelopment plan that I think is going to do a lot toward urban renewal in those areas - or suburban renewal.
VIDEO: Three greatest achievements
WHAT'S AHEAD ON REGIONAL COOPERATION
Coble: The best thing you could have for regional cooperation is consolidation of city and county government. That was attempted in the mid-'90s and it ended when every African-American elected official signed a letter to the (U.S.) Justice Department, and they didn't pre-clear the effort. So that would take some additional work, but that's there on the table if we want to have regional cooperation. ... Consolidation allows for a charter form of government where you could really write your own specific government in terms of the power and authority of everybody, and have the voters approve it.
Smith: We've accomplished a lot, but it's been with a lot of kicking and screaming. I think it's because we lack a real regional perspective. I don't think the people have it, and therefore the people they elected don't have it. There's just not an appreciation that what happens at Columbiana Mall or at Sandhills has an impact on the urban core. People who live in the city really don't give a flip about what happens in Lexington. So we've got a lot of work to do in people understanding that the hip bone's connected to the thigh bone.
There's a lot of work that's been done on economic development and how it's regional competition now; it's not a city against a city - it's a region against a region. And unless we get that right, we're going to be left behind.
Hefner: We are somewhat hindered in many ways because of our lack of a regional vision, although I think there are some positive things going on. I would cite the example of the Midlands Education and Business Alliance, which unites the school districts ... to build partnerships with businesses in preparing our students for the workforce.
WORKING TOGETHER ON SCHOOL IMPROVEMENTS
Coble: For the city, our partnership with Richland District 1 is called, "Together, We Can." ... Greater adult participation in classrooms and having greater involvement with the kids is what they have asked us to concentrate on, so whether it's the reading program that we do or it's principal for a day or it's the Lunch Buddy program that we do every two weeks and encourage other businesses to do that - that's the partnership we have with the district. It doesn't get into governance, but it does get into, "How can the greater community be more involved with the schools?"
Smith: My favorite topic: planning. We should do a much better job planning together. There's a whole question in the literature about whether schools cause sprawl or are the result of sprawl.
When you go out to a green field because you're planning on population moving out there and a school district buys the property, then immediately the home builders and retailers and strip malls start gobbling up the land and the push is ever outward. On the other hand, my good friend Mike Montgomery always said, "Yeah, but we've got to do what's right to protect the school district, and get the land while it's cheap."
I've tried to get the state to set different standards for schools. There are huge requirements for acreage. They prefer one story instead of two, and it's very hard to build a school that can be a center of a community when you've got to build a ranch. We need to rethink that whole thing, given new urbanism and smart growth, and work with our school districts.
That's really the issue going on in (Lexington-Richland) 5, because the school board out there is trying to get ahead of the curve and they keep going out; and the people are saying, "No. We've got vacancies in (these schools) here; let's keep everybody here and save some money."
So that whole issue of the chicken or the egg for schools, and sprawl, is something we need to tackle together.
Hefner: I concur there needs to be increased cooperation. Our frustration is, given the speed of growth - and up until the economy tanked, we were growing about 1,100 kids a year - we literally did not feel we had time to go through all of the steps that might be ideal. We were so far behind the eight ball that we had to move much more swiftly. ... The process moves very slowly. It's not super efficient. Not only do we have the state, we have the county. We do have some of our areas that are in the city. We have areas in Forest Acres. We have areas in Blythewood. So there are a lot of levels of government.
ADVICE FOR SUCCESSORS
Coble: Don't give your mobile phone number out to everyone. And I say that jokingly, but really not. ... For the city of Columbia, we are a very diverse city racially, economically, and in terms of the different parts of town. The mayor has to be able to keep folks pulling together on City Council and the city neighborhoods and things of that nature, which means you can't be right every time. Sometimes you're a peacemaker and a compromiser. ... If you're right every single time, you're going to have a divided city.
Smith: You have to spend some time learning. And, honestly, when I was first elected, I didn't really know what I wanted to do. ... It took me awhile to really understand how things got done, to build relationships, to develop my own personal vision for what I wanted to do. ... You have to focus if you want to get anything done.
I always remember (Charleston Mayor) Joe Riley telling me that the most important thing that a public official can do is the built environment; it's the only thing that lasts. ... That's where we really need to focus a lot of our energy and time.
I do think that race is the elephant that's in the room on every issue in this community and in this county. ... When I was first elected, we were a white Republican county and now we are a black Democratic county, more and more, and I think we've got to manage through that and talk to each other about it and build more trust and understand the different values that come to the table as a result of that.
Hefner: There are what I call numerator issues that change from time to time. They're recurring patterns that deal with growth and academic achievement and money, money being a big one right now. But there are denominator issues that never go away. I say there are two: it's race and socioeconomics. I've certainly seen a vast difference over the 36 years that I've been in District 2 in terms of how our community handles those issues, but they are a denominator of every single issue.
The piece of advice I would give in addition to always being a person of integrity and doing what's right, would be the quote I used, at the time I got this job, ... from C. S. Lewis. "Mere change is not growth." Growth is a synthesis of change and continuity, and where there is no continuity, there is no growth. So it's a balance of protecting what's good, and hanging onto it, and constantly working to make the changes that will move it forward.
CONCERNS FOR THE FUTURE
Hefner: I'm fearful we have moved toward (state) laws which will make it very difficult for us to sustain the quality of educational programs that we have provided, not just in my district but in our entire state. With the passage of Act 388 and the removal of property tax from that three-legged stool of school finance (income, sales and property taxes), it de-stabilizes our funding for schools in the state, as we've seen through this downturn in the economy.
Smith: Education is the key to the future. People won't live in neighborhoods that aren't safe and that don't have good schools, bottom line. ... The way education is just being so decimated at the state level - and we have no where else to go, because we can't raise property taxes.
Coble: Economic development. We just have to make sure Innovista works and is successful.
WHY SHOULD PEOPLE COME HERE?
Smith: People appreciate the great, quote, quality of life that we have here. I think it's hard to define that. There's a group effort that the chamber started to try to attract and keep young professionals here, I've forgotten the name of it.
Coble: The talent bank program.
Smith: It looks like a great program, but I think we've got to define what that "quality of life" is and make sure that we retain it.
Part of it, again, gets back to my old saw about having a great built environment. That, coupled with a strong education program, is what makes a good community. People - they do want to walk. I remember a home builder in town stood up and said, "People don't want to walk, why are you making us put in sidewalks in these subdivisions?" But they do want to walk. They want to walk to school if they can, and if they feel safe. They want their children to ride their bikes there safely. Getting back to those fundamental things about what makes good "quality of life" - why do we have it in our communities and how do we preserve it? I think it's a great place to bring up a family right now, and that's why people want to come here.
This new creative class is going to want to live in the Innovista with the coffee shops and walking, a more urban kind of environment, and we need to build that for them and focus on that. I would say we've got a great place and we're working hard to protect it, and the things that make it great are our school system and our good, walkable, liveable communities.
Hefner: We're big enough to afford a richness of opportunities for people who live here, and small enough for it not to be overwhelming. And I do think it's a great and wonderful place. One of the real strengths of this community as I see it, and from the students that I see here: You don't have to have been born here to rise to a position of leadership and to become a part of the community.
We're a very cosmopolitan, eclectic community. Somebody can move here when their student is in the 11th grade, and the kid can end up being president of his or her student body.
I once, because of a position I held, could hold a meeting here. It was not a huge group, 30 or 40 people from around the country, and they were excited to come because most of them had never been to Columbia but had heard about it. But when we did the cost analysis, there was no way they could get here economically because of the cost of flying into Columbia. So that meeting was relocated, as I recall, to Denver, which was much cheaper than bringing people to Columbia. So if we really want to promote ourselves beyond the driving range of 200 miles or so, that's a piece that needs some work, as I see it.
Smith: The only thing I'd like to mention that we haven't talked about is our wonderful Congaree National Park. I don't think we promote it enough. I wish I could get the council to do a $1 million advertising campaign. ... What's the other closest one? The Everglades? There's not one in Georgia. There's not one in North Carolina. It is a national park, and I think we could really build a whole tourism economy around that if we just would. It's a great place down there. I think we ought to celebrate that more.
VIDEO: Why choose Columbia?
THE DECISION TO RETIRE
Smith: The last time I ran, I knew in my heart it was the last time. ... I knew that I might want to do it again, but I shouldn't do it again. It's just time. There are chapters in your life, and I'm ready to focus on trying to manage my warrior spirit a little bit better and just be content.
I want to knit. I want to play with my grandchildren. I want to travel more. I don't want to have to be here every Tuesday night. And it's time for somebody new.
Hefner: The point in time that I knew it was time for me to go was: I've never lost sleep. I make the best decision I can make and move on, even when I make a bad call on a snow day, which I've done on more than one occasion. I make the decision, I put it to bed and I'm through with it.
But this summer ... about three nights in a row I didn't rest well, which is very unusual for me, and it hit me: I had started to worry about things over which I had no control, and I had not worried about those things before. ... One was funding and other variables that are work-related.
Of our 36 principals and lead teachers, I've hired them all. I know every single one of them, and 33 of them came up through our system; they taught in our district before they became principals or lead teachers. ... I know people. I know who they're related to.
We built these wonderful, terrific programs of specialization all across our district - all of which I'm proud of - and I saw the handwriting on the wall in terms of the economy shifting. With the tide of the sales tax, before I go we'll have to cut about $10 million from our budget for next year. I don't want to go to people and say, "We can no longer do this. We no longer can fund you."
I don't want to do that. Can I do it? Yes. Do I want to? No.
Coble: For me, 20 years was enough. You evaluate: Can you win? Will it be a tough race? And all of that.
Once you determine 20 years is enough - it's time for somebody else - it's a great relief. I don't have to worry about this or that, or go here or there.
I've enjoyed it. I still enjoy it. But 20 years is enough. ... Enough politically, enough personally. Twenty years is a long time.